About Regenerative Medicine
- Stephen J. Russell, M.D., Ph.D.
- Deputy Director
- Regenerative Medicine Translation
Stephen J. Russell, M.D., Ph.D.: Regenerative medicine is a very broad, new approach to medicine which uses the advances in stem cell technology, primarily, to advance clinical care. And what that really converts into is that instead of treating chronic diseases with drugs that have a short-term effect, and that need to be continued long term as a consequence, we can think in terms of regenerative medicine of solutions to problems.
If you think about what kind of illnesses people get, most of them are a consequence of degeneration or aging. I mean, as you go through life things stop working properly, so, you know, your eyesight begins to fail, your hearing begins to fail, you start to get problems with your joints, your muscles become weak, your heart begins to fail, your liver, your kidneys, everything, as you get older, is more likely to stop functioning correctly. And regeneration is the exact opposite of this degenerative process. I mean, the whole idea is to try and restore organs and prevent the deterioration.
I see regenerative medicine as the new surgery. I mean if you go back over Mayo Clinic's history, we were built on the brilliance of the Mayo brothers' surgery. We're seeing some real opportunity in certain specific areas that we're focusing on at this point in time. One of those is diabetes. I mean we do know that if we transplant a pancreas or if we transplant islets, the part of the pancreas that produces insulin and senses glucose, we can cure diabetes. There simply are not enough pancreas transplants available or islets available to be able to serve the need of the population because diabetes is common. So that's where regenerative medicine comes in as a way to generate islets from other cell types, generate islets from the patient's own skin cells or whatever, and so we really see that as a major opportunity.
Though great progress has been made in medicine, current evidence-based and palliative treatments are increasingly unable to keep pace with patients' needs, especially given our aging population. There are few effective ways to treat the root causes of many diseases, injuries and congenital conditions. In many cases, clinicians can only manage patients' symptoms using medications or devices.
Regenerative medicine is a game-changing area of medicine with the potential to fully heal damaged tissues and organs, offering solutions and hope for people who have conditions that today are beyond repair.
Regenerative medicine itself isn't new — the first bone marrow and solid-organ transplants were done decades ago. But advances in developmental and cell biology, immunology, and other fields have unlocked new opportunities to refine existing regenerative therapies and develop novel ones.
The Center for Regenerative Medicine takes three interrelated approaches:
Rejuvenation. Rejuvenation means boosting the body's natural ability to heal itself. Though after a cut your skin heals within a few days, other organs don't repair themselves as readily.
But cells in the body once thought to be no longer able to divide (terminally differentiated) — including the highly specialized cells constituting the heart, lungs and nerves — have been shown to be able to remodel and possess some ability to self-heal. Teams within the center are studying how to enhance self-healing processes.
Replacement. Replacement involves using healthy cells, tissues or organs from a living or deceased donor to replace damaged ones. Organ transplants, such as heart and liver transplants, are good examples.
The center aims to expand opportunities for transplants by finding ways to overcome the ongoing donor shortage, the need for immunosuppression and challenges with organ rejection.
- Regeneration. Regeneration involves delivering specific types of cells or cell products to diseased tissues or organs, where they will ultimately restore tissue and organ function. This can be done through cell-based therapy or by using cell products, such as growth factors. Bone marrow transplants are an example.
Regenerative medicine holds the promise of definitive, affordable health care solutions that heal the body from within.
The role of stem cells
Stem cells have the ability to develop — through a process called differentiation — into many different types of cells, such as skin cells, brain cells, lung cells and so on. Stem cells are a key component of regenerative medicine, as they open the door to new clinical applications.
Regenerative medicine teams are studying a variety of stem cells, including adult and embryonic stem cells. Also being studied are various types of progenitor cells, such as those found in umbilical cord blood, and bioengineered cells called induced pluripotent stem cells. Each type has unique qualities, with some being more versatile than others.
Many of the regenerative therapies under development in the Center for Regenerative Medicine begin with the particular patient's own cells. For example, a patient's own skin cells may be collected, reprogrammed in a laboratory to give them certain characteristics, and delivered back to the patient to treat his or her disease.
Stem cells 101
Stem cells and their use in regenerative medicine have been in the media a lot lately. But what exactly does it mean? Physicians and researchers in the Center for Regenerative Medicine say it has to do with developing completely new ways to treat and manage chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart failure, and degenerative nerve, bone and joint conditions.